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Anatomy of a Change

A lot of crisis management and decision-making is happening these days, particularly in education. Those decisions are happening on multiple levels, from individual families to national policy-makers. These choices aren’t just about the most immediate questions–like whether to have school in-person or remotely, and how. Many institutions and individuals are talking about “disruption” and structural changes that might outlast the pandemic.

Partnership Schools owes its existence to a period almost a decade ago, when a handful of individuals made key decisions that led to just such a significant structural change. And there are perhaps lessons in the Partnership network’s founding for those institutions facing similar pivot points. It is also useful for us as an organization to reflect on key factors that propelled us into being, so that we continue to embody that spirit as we grow.

Some context may be helpful: for decades, generous philanthropists have been providing significant financial support to Catholic schools in New York, as they have done in other cities. I became involved in that work just over twenty years ago. At the invitation of an inspiring friend, Année Kim, I came to volunteer for the Patrons Program, which matched donors with individual,  resource-strapped Catholic schools in New York City. In a tiny office with one phone, I started helping with whatever was needed: making a phone call, writing a letter, jumping in a car with her to the Bronx to show a donor a school. There was a lot of energy, and the things we and our donors were doing were clearly making a difference for kids.

But together with a partner program, the Endowment for Inner-City Education, our leadership took a hard look back at our efforts over a ten-year period. And it was clear that, despite the $200 Million we raised and spent, the systematic impact our donors had hoped for wasn’t yet within our grasp. That realization prompted us to search for a new approach–and that approach turned out to be not just raising money for schools, but taking over management of them.

That realization completely changed who we were as an organization, what we did every day, and how schools that had been around for a long time–in one case, for over 150 years–were organized. The Catholic Church and its schools are better known for tradition than change, and there was no guarantee our new model would work. So to bring about this moment of significant structural change in such a context, we found that three things were crucial:

Recognize the Crisis

At the time we chose to re-make ourselves as a school management organization, some Catholic schools–particularly in underserved neighborhoods–were closing. Tragically, that phenomenon hasn’t gone away. But the Partnership Schools continue to serve thousands of students each year in schools that might otherwise have been closed because the boards of the Patrons Program and the Endowment saw the moment a decade ago for what it was: a time when substantial change needed to happen.

While it may seem strange not to recognize a crisis that demands bold change when it’s unfolding right before you, people and organizations often make themselves feel better in tough moments by sticking with what feels familiar, and just trying to do more of it. If we just raise more money, or add a program here or there, this thinking goes, things will get better. But a crisis often calls for something more than incremental change. Recognizing that is a key step. It takes courage, too. So we were fortunate that our board had the courage to take a hard look at ten years of effort and say “there’s got to be a different way.”

Listen to Critical Friends

Once we identified the need for change, those individuals crucial to making it–most significantly, the leadership of the Archdiocese of New York, but also our own board and leadership–were willing to listen, even though we were saying that long-cherished practices had to go. That gutsy openness, particularly on Cardinal Dolan’s part, made all the difference.

That openness was possible because of two factors which, when combined together, have tremendous power: relationships and differences in approach. Our board chair, Russ Carson, has believed for a long time in the transformational impact that Catholic schools can have for students from underserved communities, and he’s made significant philanthropic investments in Catholic education. Like many of our board members, he doesn’t just give money and walk away; he has developed relationships around this commitment. One of those relationships of mutual respect is with Cardinal Dolan.

At the same time, Russ isn’t an educator, or Catholic. So he respects others’ expertise and faith, but he also brings a different way of thinking to the table. For years in his professional life as a private equity investor, he has analyzed assets; he has considered what additional value they may have; and he’s thought about how those assets need to be managed differently to produce more value. That’s not necessarily the way people who run schools or dioceses or non-profits think. But embracing a similar way of thinking has helped us keep schools going and increasing their impact on young people during a time when they might well have closed.

Again, it took courage; it’s not easy to tell people with whom you’ve developed strong collaborative friendships that something’s got to change. And it’s not easy to listen when someone tells you it’s time to change. We were fortunate that all involved in our change moment had the courage to talk about it and get it underway.

Go Big or Go Home

It became clear that if we were going to manage the schools we were proposing to take over to the level of excellence we envisioned, we were going to need to make substantial investments in them. That required a radical step: going back to donors who had made significant contributions to the endowment to ask them to release those gifts from their endowment restrictions so that we could invest them immediately in the schools.

Asking a donor to redirect a substantial gift is no small undertaking. But big results rarely happen without significant shifts to produce them. Of course, we presented those individuals and foundations with our plan, and their willingness to take a chance on it gives us one more incentive to produce the results we are after.

There’s no denying that big change is, well, big. And it usually involves risks. Facing that reality head-on in our approach to funding has given us the ability to run Catholic schools in a new way, and our students are the primary beneficiaries.


I’ve watched this spring and summer as our academic and operations teams, principals, teachers and staff all embrace significant changes in order to open our schools back up for in-person instruction. And I see in them some of the same courageous decision-making we needed at our network’s founding. They are recognizing that this is a moment of change; as  much as we want things to go back to normal, everything from walking into a building to managing learning will be different right now. Our academic plan is the result of long conversations with critical friends, whether it be our own principals and teachers or partner organizations like Teach Like a Champion. And together we are going big, pursuing the benefits of in-person instruction with the commitments of resources and creativity it takes to do so safely.

Such decisions are never easy–particularly in education, where children’s futures are at stake. But the decision to make big changes and form our network is one we have never regretted. And we admire all those who are making gutsy decisions on behalf of students in the present moment.

Jill Kafka is the Executive Director of Partnership Schools.